The Sutherland clan derive their name from the territory known as Sudrland by the Norsemen who had conquered much of the Scottish mainland north of Inverness. The family are thought to be of Flemish origin, descendants of Freskin, who is also an ancestor of the Murrays of Atholl. Freskin was a Norman knight who had moved north during the Norman conquests. King David I of Scotland had brought the Norman knights into his court to help pacify the more unruly parts of his kingdom.
Freskin had originally settled around West Lothian but he was later granted lands in the Pictish kingdom of Moireabh (Moray). Through careful intermarriage with the house of Moray the Freskins grew their power base and the took over completely. Freskin’s descendants took the name ‘de Moravia’ (of Moray in old Norman French). His grandson Hugh de Moravia was granted lands in Sutherland and took the title ‘Lord de Sudreland’.
It is confusing why an area so far north should be called ’Sutherland’ or ‘lands to the south’. This was the name given to the area by the Vikings who had settled in the islands of Orkney and Shetland to the north. And so the Norman (men from the north – ancient Vikings who had settled in Northern France) came from the south and settled an area in the far North of Scotland called the land of the south!
it was Hugh’s brother William who began Clan Murray
Hugh’s eldest son; William de Moravia was titled ‘1st Earl of Sutherland’ and the clan became from then on known as ‘Sutherland’
William de Moravia, the 3rd Earl fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 on the side of Robert the Bruce. The 4th Earl, Kenneth, was killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, a withering defeat for the Scots. The 5th Earl, William married Margaret, daughter of Robert the Bruce and sister of David II of Scotland – giving the clan strong ties to the Scottish crown. This alliance didn’t always work out well and William was captured along with the King at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1345. Both were held prisoner for ten years in England. The Earl’s son John narrowly missed out in becoming king after being designated heir before Robert Stewart became King Robert II in 1371
The Earls of Sutherland had a less than easy relationship with their neighbouring clans. The Sinclair’s in Cathness, and the MacKays and MacLeods to the west all crossed swords at some point. The chief of clan MacKay was murdered by Nicholas Sutherland of Duffus – a branch off the main Sutherland Clan at Dingwall Castle, during a botched attempt to settle their differences. The Mackay’s took revenge by setting fire to Dornoch Cathedral and the hanging of a number of Sutherland men in the town square. The feud ultimately cost the life of the 5th Earl at the hands of the MacKays in 1370.
in 1431 an army of Murrays and Sutherlands met the Mackay’s in battle at Drumnacoub on the slopes of Ben Loyal near Tongue. In 1480 John MacDonald the Earl of Ross invaded Sutherland but he was seen off by a force of Sutherland and Murray men. In 1513 William Sutherland, 4th Laird of Duffus was among the long list of Scottish nobles who died fighting at the Battle of Flodden.
in 1517 the Sutherland and Gordon Clans came together in a less warlike fashion when the 10th Countess of Sutherland married Adam Gordon, son of Gordon of Huntly. Their son Alexander Gordon inherited the earldom and became chief of Sutherland. This didn’t go down well with the MacKays who took arms against the Gordon clan and fought them at the Battle of Torran Dubh at Rogart near Sutherland later that same year. The result was a defeat for MacKay. That wasn’t the end of the conflict and the next dispute came from the countess’s own brother who made a claim for the chiefship. He was seen off by Adam Gordon at the battle of Alltachuillain, and was killed in the process.
The 11th Earl of Sutherland, John Gordon led his clan against the English at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh This was the last pitched battle between Scotland and England before the union of the crowns and was part of Henry VIII ‘Rough Wooing’ of Scotland. in 1555 the four century long feud with the MacKays ended with the battle of Garbharry in Berriedale. The new found kinship with the MacKays was cemented in 1586 when they joined forces to battle the neighbouring clan Gunn at Leckmain.
Sutherland’s attention then switched to the Clan Sinclair and they besieged Girnigoe Castle in 1588. George Sinclair the 5th Earl Caithness retaliated with an invasion of Sutherland lands in 1590 and fought the clan at Clynetradwell near Brora.
In the 17th century the Sutherland and Gordon clans began to differ over religious grounds. The Gordon’s were devoutly Catholic whereas the Sutherlands had embraced Protestantism. This was just another example of the religious schism that effected everyone across Scotland during this troubled period. the 14th Earl stood against the Royalists at the Battle of Aldearn, a Royalist Victory, and later the Sutherlands joined clans Munro and Ross against James Graham the Marquis of Montrose during his campaign. This was a home win for the Sutherlands at the battle of Carbissale.
in 1685 a group of Scottish nobles led by Archibald Campbell the 9th Earl of Argyll attempted to overthrow king James VII. The rising was a diversionary tactic to tie up forces in Scotland and allow the Duke of Monmouth to march on London. This Protestant force had opposed the king after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. the Sutherlands led by John Gordon the 16th Earl might have been enthusiastic Protestants but the disliked Campbell more than they dislike Catholics so they joined the fight against the Earl of Argyll.
During the 1715 Jacobite Rising normal service was resumed and the 16th Earl took arms on the side of the King George I and defended Inverness castle against the Jacobites. Sutherland men were again in the fray on the Government side at the battle of Glenshiel in 1719 which all but ended this chapter of the Jacobite rising. At this time John Gordon, the 16th Earl officially changed his name to Sutherland and was recognised officially as chief in the name and arms of Sutherland by the Lord Lyon.
When Charles Edward Stuart arrived in Scotland to begin the 1745 Jacobite rising the Sutherland’s once again came out on the Government side. The Jacobites led by George MacKenzie the Earl of Cromartie took Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland’s clan seat at Golspie – the chief narrowly escaped them by leaving via a back door and making it to the sea where he sailed for Aberdeen. He regrouped and took on Mackenzies men at Littleferry, however despite this and maybe because of the clan’s brief dally against the Campbells or maybe just because of the British Government’s mistrust of the highlanders the government still suspected they were Jacobites – a ridiculous position to take.
In 1766 William Sutherland the 18th Earl died leaving an only daughter, Elizabeth. Her right to inherit the titles was challenged by George Sutherland of Forse – a direct male descendant of the original de Moravia Earls. Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun also threw his hat in and a three way dispute ensued. The case was taken to the House of Lords in 1771 and settled in favour of Elizabeth,
Maybe if the decision had gone differently the fate of the highlands might have been better, Elizabeth married George Leveson Gower, The Marquess of Stafford who became the first Duke of Sutherland in 1833. Sutherland knew nothing of the responsibilities of being a clan chief and cared even less. He ruthlessly and aggressively cleared the Sutherland lands aided by his notorious henchman Patrick Sellar. together they cast a black shadow on the landscape that is there to this day.
When the 5th Duke died the chiefship and Ealrdom passed once more to a female, his niece Elizabeth the 24th Countess. Elizabeth died in 2019 and was succeeded by Alistair the 25th Earl of Sutherland.